Monday, September 04, 2006

Sayyid Qutb's Dishonesty

(Image from Wikipedia)

Among other distractions from my work, I'm reading Lawrence Wright's new book, The Looming Tower, which aims to tell the story of events leading to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Following a brief "Prologue," Wright introduces Sayyid Qutb in the book's first Chapter, "The Martyr," whose title alludes to Qutb's imprisonment and execution in 1965 and 1966, respectively, by the Egyptian government. Prior to that unhappy time was an earlier unhappy time, 1948 to 1950, when he visited America and grew to hate American culture. In between those two unhappy times was a long unhappy time from 1954 to 1964, when he was imprisoned.

His sole satisfaction during those long years was derived from his two great works, a Qur'an commentary, Fi zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), and an Islamic political manifesto, Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones). These two works map his development from a well-known modernist author and critic, which was his motive for studying in America, to even better-known Islamist theoretician and revolutionary, for which he was executed.

I'd first heard of Qutb shortly after 9/11 but only really began to realize his significance when I read an essay, "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror" (pdf, The New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003) by Paul Berman, who at the time of his writing admitted:
By now I have made my way through a little less than half of "In the Shade of the Qur'an," which I think is all that exists so far in English, together with three other books by Qutb. And I have something to report. Qutb is not shallow. Qutb is deep. "In the Shade of the Qur'an" is, in its fashion, a masterwork. Al Qaeda and its sister organizations are not merely popular, wealthy, global, well connected and institutionally sophisticated. These groups stand on a set of ideas too, and some of those ideas may be pathological, which is an old story in modern politics; yet even so, the ideas are powerful. We should have known that, of course. But we should have known many things.
Berman points to Qutb's central analysis:
As Qutb saw it, Europeans, under Christianity's influence, began to picture God on one side and science on the other. Religion over here; intellectual inquiry over there. On one side, the natural human yearning for God and for a divinely ordered life; on the other side, the natural human desire for knowledge of the physical universe. The church against science; the scientists against the church. Everything that Islam knew to be one, the Christian Church divided into two. And, under these terrible pressures, the European mind split finally asunder. The break became total. Christianity, over here; atheism, over there. It was the fateful divorce between the sacred and the secular. Europe's scientific and technical achievements allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. And the Europeans inflicted their "hideous schizophrenia" on peoples and cultures in every corner of the globe.
There's enough fact and insight in Qutb's understanding to make it a formidable cultural analysis of Modernity.

Qutb is therefore "deep," as Berman reports, but based on my reading of The Looming Tower, I also have something to report: Qutb is dishonest.

Qutb claims that when he was in the George Washington University Hospital in February 1949, Americans knew very well about Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and reacted immediately upon hearing of his violent death. Here's what Wright tells us from Qutb's own words:
News came of the assassination of Hasan al-Banna, the Supreme Guide of the Society of the Muslim Brothers, on February 12, in Cairo. Qutb relates that there was a hubbub in the street outside his hospital window. He inquired about the reason for the festivities. "Today the enemy of Christianity in the East was killed," he says that doctors told him. "Today, Hasan al-Banna was murdered." (15)

Wright then dryly observes, "It is difficult to credit that Americans, in 1949, were sufficiently invested in Egyptian politics to rejoice at the news of Banna's death" (15). Exactly. There simply could not have been a hubbub in the street celebrating the death of Hasan al-Banna. Qutb invented an 'event' and described it in the way that made sense in an Arab context, namely, the street celebration. Americans don't celebrate in the streets over distant assassinations of obscure figures ... or even of well-known figures.

Why did Qutb lie?

Perhaps because he considered his own deeply felt truth to be more important than the mere factual 'truth' of the matter? Americans didn't actually celebrate al-Banna's death? They hadn't actually heard of al-Banna? Irrelevant details. America was in fact diametrically opposed to all that al-Banna stood for. American success was effectively a celebration of his death.

What Qutb wrote was therefore 'true' even if it wasn't literally true.

Also: "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," "Ignorance is Strength."

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At 6:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, that's an entirely plausible suggestion ... and would make Qutb's little story less of a lie.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:00 PM, Blogger dearieme said...

But if less of a liar, more of a fool.

At 4:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dearieme, exactly.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Warrior, thanks for your comment. Qutb could just as accurately be characterized a "reactionary" as a "revolutionary," but we need not argue semantics.

You don't address my points specifically, so I don't know what "truth" it is that I'm supposed to see.

At any rate, I know -- presumably with my 'Western' eye -- that Qutb lied about Americans celebrating in the streets (or imagined it), and I know this for the reasons that I've provided in my blog entry.

Jeffery Hodges

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